Rolf Gustafsson

Social capital -‘social’ or ‘capital’ ?


This lecture presents a critical analysis of the metaphorical concept ‘social capital’ (SC) which is widely used in public discourse. It reports several problems with SC both conceptually and in terms of possible effects on the public discourse. The time is ripe for a thorough analysis of the related conceptual apparatus including trust, interests, norms, egoism and altruism. A conceptual history of the social sciences ? la Hirschman’s ‘passions and interests’ follows: ‘Passions’ are historically first separated from ‘interests’, then norms/passions are set in contradiction to economic interests and finally neo-classic economic thinking pervades the social sciences with a theoretical passion for interest. This is the historical background to the present dominance of rational choice theories and ‘mixed models’ of human motivation implicating strategies to ’embedd’, ‘direct’ and ‘lubricate’ rational interests by norms and SC. The need for a concept like SC is created by this circular theoretical pattern that also traps the concept of trust in atomistic, instrumental and objectivistic perspectives. Adam Smith?s theory of moral sentiment is presented as an alternative that conceptually could re-integrate norms, interests and reflexion. Together with an Habermasian perspective, Smith’s analysis of recognition and respect render a shift of focus possible; from ‘how to enhance co-operation and economic growth by social capital, trust and confidence’ to ‘how to secure democratic deliberation in civil society in order to create warranted and reflexive trust’.